Nick-Davis.com: 100 Favorite Films
(USA, 2005; dir. Phil Morrison; scr. Angus MacLachlan; cin. Peter Donahue; with Embeth Davidtz, Amy Adams, Alessandro Nivola, Benjamin McKenzie, Celia Weston, Scott Wilson, Frank Hoyt Taylor, Joanne Pankow, Alicia Van Couvering)
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I see precious few movies, even "small" ones, that don't arrive to me via a multimillion dollar marketing campaign, eventually unveiled in a highly branded movie theater after I've read innumerable reviews, web chatter, or magazine features. It's increasingly hard to "discover" a movie in commercial release, but that's how Junebug felt to me, and still feels. I missed the January news-blips that surely recorded Amy Adams receiving a Special Jury Prize for acting at Sundance, even though this is the sort of minuscule Arts Section item that had previously led me to memorable encounters with mini-indies like Brother to Brother, Down to the Bone, and All the Real Girls, so I'm always on the lookout. And I know I saw some Sundance coverage, because I knew to hunt down that year's Hustle & Flow, Murderball, Police Beat, Me and You and Everyone We Know, and Grand Jury Prize winner Forty Shades of Blue as soon as I could (and all of them, to a one, are marvelous). But on September 11, 2005, in New York City (a framework of time and place not without resonance), I took a chance on Junebug because it was playing down the street from my partner's workplace while I waited for him to finish his shift. I harbored residual affection for Embeth Davidtz in The Gingerbread Man and Schindler's List, Alessandro Nivola in Face/Off and Laurel Canyon, Scott Wilson in Monster (I didn't screen In Cold Blood till later that fall), and Celia Weston in everything: sharp actors who retained a lot of underdog appeal. Stephen Holden had an effusive blurb on the poster, but Stephen Holden is close to the bottom of the list of critics I obey. I didn't expect a thing. But soon, I was in quiet raptures.
Exactly three months later, on December 11, I saw the film again in Hartford, Connecticut, in a slightly dingy four-plex that could only be accessed by walking or driving alongside the runway of a barely-used airport for private planes. This second outing, inauspiciously located but consequently redolent of privacy, further assured me of having stumbled into a radiant, barely-heralded artifact. Junebug is exquisite. As I have said many times, this Favorites Countdown isn't intended as a venue for expressing what's good about these movies so much as what I like about them, but of course the distinction keeps breaking down. In Junebug's case, my instantaneous and extraordinary fondness for it had heaps to do with how unexpectedly shrewd and well-made I felt it to be, in the guise of yet another no-budget indie dramedy about a quirky family riven by national fissures writ small. The movie is smart and sensitive about its characters, but not in the hyper-demonstrative or drippy ways that movies often adopt to certify their "sensitivity." Director Phil Morrison and writer Angus MacLachlan, neither of whose names meant anything to me in 2005 (though I can now prompt you toward MacLachlan's Goodbye to All That, another multi-karat gem), had clearly thought about what to film in relation to what and how their characters would care about, admit, conceal, remember, or take for granted. They wrote, filmed, and edited with tension and discipline, cutting to the hearts of scenes, encapsulating their upshots while avoiding gratuitous comment. The brisk, curious, unwordy opening at Davidtz's gallery auction is all the movie needed, even on my first viewing, to tip its flush hand: sophisticated humanism, idiomatic specificity, wit, panache, mystique (he's "going to buy the UFO," but why not the painting that he says "makes me happy," and why can't we see the UFO?), and an adult sexiness worthy of both terms.
Junebug opened in a period of mounting Red-Blue polarization, in film culture as elsewhere. At the multiplex, 2004 came down to Fahrenheit 9/11 vs. The Passion of the Christ. 2005, by its finish, separated those hugging Brokeback to their chests from those desperate to quit it. Junebug stuck out for exploring the tensions and misunderstandings among multiple Americas in an amazingly non-dogmatic way, using the insider/outsider dynamics of newly acquainted relatives as both a mirror and a foil to regional, national, and political species of recognition and disavowal. Everybody looks strange to everybody, sometimes literally: poppa Eugene, silently ambling around, visibly on the edge of tears, expressing himself through whittling; his son George, expressing even less; Madeleine, the focal character, making urbane faux pas in rural North Carolina, feeling comfortable too quickly (with her brother-in-law, with a backwater painter) or not quickly enough (with her mother-in-law, at times with her own husband). Strategies that work in one relationship fail in another: pregnant Ashley loves being a confidante of secrets Madeleine hasn't even shared with George; seconds later, mama Peg interprets the same gesture as unseemly disloyalty toward her irreproachable son. One minute, you're indulging a new admirer as she paints your nails like a pre-teen seducing a new bestie; the next minute, you're waving your hands in the air like a deranged anemone, puzzling everyone you've been desperate to please. One minute, the unlaundered, perverse projections of an outsider artist suggest an exciting, unfathomable American id ("I love all the dog heads, and the computers, and all the scrotums," Madeleine rhapsodizes before one of David Wark's nutty canvases), and the next minute, as your prize artist huffs about a "Jewess" he mistrusts, the American id seems ...less charming. As does your own focus on career at a time of family celebration, which soon becomes a moment of family crisis. As does your own decision to marry someone you'd known for a week, capable of sublime surprises when he opens his mouth to sing, but prone to setting nasty traps and staging sudden, bitter retreats.
All of those dynamics and many, many, many more in this amazingly layered film carry regional and political overtones, but they're also Just Folks. People are mysterious in Junebug because people are mysterious, not just because they hail from somewhere else or believe different things or present totally contrasting personalities in different settings. So we learn about the surliest character, Ben McKenzie's Johnny, during a delicious and unexpected trip to his workplace, unlike anything else I can recall from a recent American film. Like the people who inhabit them, even spaces are enigmatic despite their seeming ordinariness. Junebug often dwells on treelines, kitchens, bedrooms, and church basements in silent contemplation before they get filled, usually after a slow dissolve that gives the movie a quality of reverie, despite its plainspokenness in other respects. That's what I value most about Junebug: its total interest in human contradiction, presentedly starkly but not simply, handled by a director, writer, and cast with the delicacy of glassblowers. Madeleinesuperbly realized by Embeth Davidtz, who was cast one day before shootingis both alert to something special in Wark's canvases and entirely guilty of fetishizing the Primitive Other. George is the source of his mother's greatest happiness and her deepest sorrow. Ashley, in Amy Adams's incandescent coming-out party, is a wide-eyed naïf (she buffers and reboots when a visiting cosmopolitan says "fuck," or reveals she was born in Japan) but also a shrewd observer of the pickle she's in, confessing more than she intends to an unlikely caretaker. In North Carolina, faith and cynicism, hospitality and judgment, inspiration and retail slavery, devotion and abandonment keep circling each other. The newlywed guests are both fondly checking in and flagrantly checked out. They seem okay and not okay when they leave.
There's so much else to say. For example, in brief: meerkat, pica, Huck Finn, "Woak," Bernadette, fruit basket, sister-lawyer, "Pat," Zingers, engraved invitation, Cinnamon Fizz, peanuts, screwing, "remember what I said," and "Junebug," a name as diversely resonant as "Rosebud," and just as opaque. These and other reference-points assume vivid life, often quickly, in a movie whose canvas keeps expanding to encompass them. Seeing and hearing more of Junebug's world always involves understanding it more and less. Like any place, properly observed, this community evinces trend lines and anomalies in almost equal measure. In that way, Junebug is no less confounding than David Wark's paintings: you stare at it just as long, with bemused bewilderment, and fond fascination. But it's also like one of those plates that Tarra Jolly, Johnny's co-worker, hoists in the shipping factory and taps with her Bic pen, checking for cracks. Junebug has none. It's shapely, sturdy, and clean. Strike it from any direction, and it sings.